Skiing is one of the most exhilarating and challenging sports in the world and is popular almost everywhere.
People travel to the mountains and ski resorts all over the world to experience the joy of skiing, but despite its widespread popularity and appeal, there is some disagreement between different parts of the world on how to categorize the various different types of slopes one is likely to encounter while skiing at a resort.
It’s very important to understand the different ski slope colors and the differences between them, and the different systems certain parts of the world use in order to not only ensure you get a fun skiing experience but a safe one too.
Skiing may be incredibly enjoyable and exhilarating, but it’s also one of the most dangerous sports in the world, and even on a very well maintained resort on the safer routes, the risk of serious injury and even death is significant, despite the many safety measures taken by resorts and the ski patrol to minimize these risks.
In this guide, however, we’re going to focus purely on the importance of ski slope colors and how pistes are graded, to ensure you have the knowledge to navigate through a resort safely and effectively no matter where in the world you’re skiing.
What Is A Piste?
A piste is an official skiing route that is maintained and marked by the resort, often served by the various ski lifts and gondolas that a ski resort uses to ferry skiers to the top of the route.
The key thing that makes a piste however is that the snow is usually heavily groomed and compacted by snowcats to make the run as smooth and skiable as possible, removing moguls and other unwanted features.
However not all pistes are as well maintained as others, and not all benefit from as much grooming or the use of snow-making machines, particularly more inaccessible and difficult advanced and expert level runs higher up the mountain, or where these features are a part of the experience.
Pistes are broken up into various difficulties according to various factors such as their steepness, how narrow they are, and whether they have moguls or difficult features.
These difficulty ratings are usually marked clearly on both resort maps and with signage on the piste itself, and while there are some similarities between different areas of the world and the systems used, there are some very important differences to be aware of too.
Now, let’s get into the basics of the two main rating systems and what they mean.
Colors In The EU & Most Of The World
- Green – Beginner slopes
- Blue – Early Intermediate slopes
- Red – Advanced intermediate slopes
- Black – Expert slopes
- Colors in the US & Canada
- Green with a White Center – Beginner
- Green – Novice
- Blue – Intermediate
- Black Diamond – Advanced
- Double Black Diamond – Extreme
Note: Some resorts may use a seldom-used symbol, a black diamond inside a blue square, to mark a slope that is somewhere between a blue and black in its difficulty, however, this isn’t used very often, but worth noting nonetheless.
There are also some specific resorts that use an Orange Diamond to indicate a slope that is more dangerous or difficult than a double black diamond. These markers act as extreme warnings and should be taken very seriously as they are seldom used.
Green Slopes/Beginner Slopes a.k.a The Bunny Slopes
Green slopes are the least steep slopes available at any ski resort, and typically have a steepness of less than 25%.
These slopes are typically very wide and shallow with plenty of space for beginners to move and practice basic skiing techniques without getting overwhelmed or overcrowded.
Every beginner needs a relatively safe place to learn the ropes of skiing, from safely getting into and out of skis, to the basics of pushing, turning, and crucially, stopping.
These slopes are designed to be safe for falling over and usually don’t allow skiers to generate much speed, due to their lack of gradient, meaning it’s easy for beginners to stay in control as they learn.
These slopes are usually very close to the resort or even within the center of it for easy access, and often use various types of simple lifts, from travelators (also known as magic carpets) to standing lifts and rope tow lifts.
These lifts are usually slow-moving and easy to use, however, there are often quite funny instances of beginners falling over when getting used to the tow rope system which is a lot of fun for observers.
There is usually at least some resort staff around these slopes to monitor things, and help uncertain beginners with using the various lifts when both mounting and dismounting them.
It’s very common for beginners to spend at least a day or two on green slopes exclusively, where they can learn with friends or with a ski instructor who will rapidly accelerate their progress and get them ready for the next challenge, the blue slopes.
Before we get to that, however, it’s important to note that some green slopes constitute a meeting place at the end of more advanced runs, and so there may sometimes be more advanced skiers moving down greens at higher speeds, so stay alert even on the green slope and don’t let these more confident skiers knock you off your rhythm.
Blue Slopes/Intermediate Slopes
Blue slopes are the next level up from greens and constitute an intermediate difficulty run, with a gradient range of around 25% to 40%.
Once you’ve gotten the hang of skiing basics such as turning, stopping, and avoiding other skiers then you’re ready to get off the bunny slopes and take your first real skiing challenge.
In the EU these runs are marked with a blue circle, while in the US and Canada they are marked with a blue square.
Typically these slopes are quite a bit steeper than green slopes and will feel daunting on your first run. They can be a little bit narrower than greens and require you to use your turns to effectively stay in control due to the gradient.
Being aware of other skiers is also key because skiers here will be moving much more quickly and en masse, so try not to stop in the middle of the slope and get to the edge if you do need to take a break or slow down significantly.
Blue slopes will make up a significant part of a ski resort’s available pistes and will allow you to start exploring the different slopes the area has to offer very well, without needing to worry about red or black grade slopes.
This means intermediate-level skiers can get a great experience and won’t be limited at all, as most skiers will stay exclusively on blue or intermediate slopes.
The higher difficulty slopes are only really there for the more ambitious adrenaline junkies who want to get that little bit closer to the edge and challenge their skills.
Another key point is that the ski lifts move a lot faster on these slopes, sometimes double the speed of the green slope lifts, so it can take some getting used to using the lifts here. Stay calm, and allow the lift to pick you up naturally as you get on board.
When dismounting, try standing once the lift has entered the station and allow the rim of the seat to push you forward out of the ski lift area and into the entrance of the slope.
Red/Advanced Intermediate Slopes
Red slopes are interesting as they are found everywhere except for the US and Canada, as their system breaks the difficulties up slightly differently and uses different markers from here on.
In the EU and the rest of the world apart from North America, red slopes are considered advanced-intermediate slopes, somewhere between a steep blue and shallow black diamond run.
These runs are characterized by their increased gradient, narrower routes, and the less well-groomed terrain which can feature significant moguls and bumps, as well as sheer or steep drop-offs.
Red runs require a skier to be confident using parallel turns and hockey stops, and are really only safe for confident skiers capable of executing advanced skiing techniques like these with precision and confidence.
Some red runs may be easier than others, but in general, they are a serious challenge and represent a significant step up from blue runs.
It’s also worth noting that some red slopes may link up with blue slopes or even black slopes, so always make sure to check your route and monitor where you are and where you’re going to avoid accidentally biting off more than you can chew!
Black Slopes/Expert Slopes
Black slopes are expert-level runs and have gradients regularly or consistently exceeding 40%, making them incredibly dangerous and requiring great confidence and skill to navigate.
While black diamonds in the US and Canada represent somewhere between a red and black run in the EU, black runs in the EU and the rest of the world are the most difficult marked routes on the resort and are only for skiers with years of experience and mastery over the most difficult and important skiing techniques.
In the US and Canada, the double black diamond runs are equivalent to the black runs elsewhere, and may even be a little more difficult.
They are very narrow, meaning your turning needs to be very precise and confident, often have extremely steep and challenging moguls, drop-offs, exposure to highly challenging weather conditions, high altitude, and high speed.
These slopes are deadly to anyone who isn’t confident in their ability to ski well and are extremely tough and dangerous even to intermediate skiers.
Going off-piste is the final frontier for most skiers, and is the most dangerous form of skiing where avalanche risk, crevices, and getting lost are all conspiring to kill you.
Going off-piste means you’ve left the marked and monitored resort trails and are essentially in the wilderness of the mountain where there is no ski patrol, no safety of any kind, and some beautiful untouched snow to ski.
The most ambitious and talented skiers go off-piste seeking untouched vistas of snow to enjoy, but are often incredibly experienced and use all kinds of extra equipment to help prevent getting lost, getting buried in an avalanche, and climbing out of bad situations.
Guides from the local area are also essential to prevent getting lost or wandering into particularly dangerous areas of the mountain.
It’s so dangerous to go off-piste that standard skiing holiday insurance doesn’t cover this, and a specific type of insurance needs to be purchased to cover this type of incredibly dangerous activity.
There are no markings, no ski lifts and very little chance of help reaching you should the worst happen, which is why most skiers are content to share the marked slopes and stay on piste, even if it does mean dealing with crowds, icy slopes, and yes, of course, snowboarders.
Overall, ski slope colors are by their very nature simple to understand, as it’s important that all skiers can quickly and effectively identify where they are, even in the difficult conditions that regularly hit ski slopes and resorts.
Always make sure to familiarize yourself with the resort you’re skiing and the system they use. In the EU and most of the world, the system is consistent and uniform, with only North America using the slightly different rating system for advanced intermediate and expert level slopes.
Always remember to only ski where you’re comfortable skiing, and never get pressured into moving up to a new grade before you’re ready, as a broken leg will put an end to your holiday before it’s even fully started.
It’s also highly recommended taking at least a refresher ski lesson even as an experienced skier to get refamiliarized with skiing and to work out any bad habits before you start.
For beginners this is essential to getting out of the bunny slope in good time and making the most of your ski trip, exploring the resort to its fullest extent.